Judge Gordon Sullivan suffers continual iPad terrors.
Iconic and terrifying thrillers.
In today's world we have access to hundreds of channels. Thanks to DVR technology, we get to watch what we want, when we want—but that wasn't always the case. Just a few decades ago, a handful of channels was the norm, and viewers watched what they were given, not what they wanted. Want to watch a Christmas movie? Wait until December. Have a hankering for horror? October is your best bet. Of course networks weren't totally deaf to the needs of their consumers, including everything in their programming from standard shows to Hollywood films and local interest material. Much of that has survived to the present day, but one aspect has fallen by the wayside: the made-for-TV movie. Sure cable channels keep them alive by churning out endless iterations of the stalker formula, but they no longer command the kind of attention they could on network television. Scream Factory is trying to keep the flame alive by releasing TV Terrors: The Initiation of Sarah / Are You in the House Alone?, a pair of 1978 features that try to tingle the spine. They're mostly of historical value, but fans of the era should definitely check them out.
There's a very good reason that made-for-TV movies aren't all the rage any more. There's almost no way they can compete with their big-budget, big-screen counterparts. This is especially difficult for horror films, which often rely on an effects budget and/or the ability to gross out audience. TV movies have to get past censors, so gore isn't really an option. The best of the bunch know that this means dialing up the creep factor, but sadly most simply give us gory films with the gore removed, essentially leaving all the boring parts with none of the payoff. Throw in the fact that the films haven't aged well—hair, clothes, and slang are all dated—and no one would blame viewers for staying away from these relics.
Staying away means that you miss the surprising treats these films have to offer. The major thing that people forget about TV features is that they were able to attract a surprisingly strong group of actors for even the most goofy premise. I don't know what motivates the actors—it can't be money, given the budgets—but it's not at all rare to find actors with serious name recognition in otherwise forgettable films. The Initiation of Sarah boasts a really strong lead performance from Kay Lenz. Downplaying her natural beauty, Lenz has to play the awkward nerd, and rather than relying on a pair of glasses to sell it, Lenz instead gives us a performance rife with insecurity and personal growth. Her opposite number is played by Morgan Fairchild. No one who's familiar with Fairchild will be surprised that she plays the bitchy, preppy sorority sister with total conviction. The older generation is fleshed out with appearances from Shelley Winters and Kathryn Crosby; it's an impressive cast that really sells the otherwise goofy telekinetic premise.
Are You in the House Alone? boasts a similarly impressive cast. Kathleen Beller has to play a young woman at a crossroads, trying to find her way in a world in which her parents are fighting and she's being stalked. She's sympathetic and never comes off as whiny or otherwise irritating. Familiar faces like Tony Bill and Blythe Danner show up as well, but the real treat is a pre-fame Dennis Quaid. Long before he made his name with The Right Stuff, Quaid was in a number of TV roles, including this one. It's probably not reason enough to watch the film, but it's a nice treat for fans.
The other reason to watch made-for-TV movies is that they're usually only one step away from the afterschool special, and the afterschool special is a perfect index of America's fears and anxieties in the late 1970s. Strip away all the telekinetic mumbo-jumbo from The Initiation of Sarah and you've got a story of a young woman coming of age and figuring out her place in the world. It's basically a ripoff of Carrie, but instead of being anti-religious, The Initiation of Sarah is about choosing the right friends and the importance of family.
Are You in the House Alone? is even closer to afterschool special territory. It promises a kind of riff on the old story of a babysitter trapped in the house with a stalker, much like Black Christmas. Instead, Are You in the House Alone? offers a parable about stalking and sexual assault. In a decade that saw a number of films deal with the changing status of women and sexual assault, Are You in the House Alone? stands out for giving its lead Gail a realistic life—her parents are heading for a divorce, she's trying to figure out her own burgeoning sexuality—and striking out at the system as much as the perpetrator. The whole thing ends on a surprisingly down note that stays just on the right side of being preachy.
I was frankly amazed when I popped in this DVD. Both films are included in their original full-frame 1.33:1 aspect ratios on the same disc. I was expecting a pair of fuzzy, scratched up films culled from prints that had languished in network archives. Instead, we get rich, vibrant transfers from prints that are all-but pristine. The rich tones of late-seventies film stock are well represented on this disc, and detail is generally very strong. Black levels are consistent and deep as well. Overall these films look great, and quite a bit better than thirty-plus-year-old made-for-TV films have any right to look. The mono soundtracks provided for both films are fine for their age as well; dialogue is clearly audible and well balanced with the scores and effects.
Of course these films aren't classics by any stretch. The stories are very predictable—including a moment in Initiation where something nasty is dumped on a character a la Carrie—and the hair and clothing styles require a lot of patience on the part of the viewer. Those not willing to take the films with a grain of salt would do better to find more contemporary pleasures.
Though they're not the greatest examples of filmmaking, late-seventies made-for-TV films are an interesting historical oddity, and it's a good thing that Scream Factory is preserving that legacy for fans of the genre. Though these two films aren't for everyone, they're an interesting pair of oddities and worth checking out for fans of the acting or those with fond memories of growing up on the genre.
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Scales of Justice, Are You In The House Alone?
Perp Profile, Are You In The House Alone?
Studio: Shout! Factory
Distinguishing Marks, Are You In The House Alone?
Scales of Justice, The Initiation Of Sarah
Perp Profile, The Initiation Of Sarah
Studio: Shout! Factory
Distinguishing Marks, The Initiation Of Sarah
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